What it’s really like being a stay at home dad

Our stay at home dad columnist Adam Mamo on the joys and challenges of being a stay at home dad.

Many months ago I switched dad codes from the full time employed variety to the stay at home type, for a toddler and a baby. The swap not only brought significant challenges but also regular questions from other dads: “What’s it like really?” and “how hard is it… honestly?”

There seemed to be some suspicion in the dad world about the true difficulty of full time parenting. There is still some far-fetched idea that it’s all just some unified scam by mums to stay out of the workforce, sip coffee at cafes and enjoy the delights of daytime television.

The first time I was asked how hard it is, I’d been on the job just a few weeks and replied, “those mum blogs make you think it’s tougher than deep sea fishing off the Alaskan coast, but it’s not actually that hard”.

I’d soon realise that my response was like jogging one kilometre before decreeing that marathon running is easy. Now though, I’ve seen some shit – and experienced moments when I’d gladly trade my position for the surly decks of a breezy fishing vessel.

Before I scuttle the bright-eyed optimism of dads seeking the truth, it’s important to start with the positives. Being a stay at home dad is one of the most courageous and hardcore things a modern man can do. Lasting bonds are built with your kids and sacrifices made are rewarded through self-growth and the discovery of new skills and strengths.

Then it’s time to harpoon any misconception that stay-at-home dadding is “living the dream”.

Forget about recognition

There’s no industry award for Best New Stay at Home Dad and there’s certainly no promotion or pay rise. If you’re accustomed to regular butt pats and kudos, it’ll be a shock to your reinforcement-requiring system. From your partner, recognition will flow early but can quickly morph into expectation. Relentless self-motivation and a stoic attitude are key attributes for successful long-term stay at home dadding.

Additionally, coming home each evening to be received like a niche-sport world champ parading down Queen Street is over. You’re no longer the cool parent, the carefree fun one who turns a blind eye to jumping on the sofa and risks nappy bag-free trips out. Bridle up for the shift from show pony to workhorse.

You’ll never be alone but you’ll feel alone. It’s difficult to avoid feeling isolated. Your world shrink-wraps around you and it becomes clear you’re a minority. The search for like-minded dads to chill with during the week can be arduous. ’Parent’s Groups’ are mostly just mummy groups that claim to be inclusive but don’t need your type in their ranks.

Why not? A functioning mums’ group is complex and requires certain roles to be filled. There’s the ex-middle management mum, who complains about always organising but refuses help, the struggling-to-cope mum with the naughty kid, and of course, the anti-vax mum that’s a constant topic of private online chats outside the group. What a mums’ group doesn’t need is some dad contaminating this delicate ecosystem.

The best bet for work hours company is more informal: locate other day-walker dads in your area, meet weekly at a park, split a six-pack and watch your kids wrestle. Talk sport and cars, exaggerate about how badass you were before becoming a dad, complain a lot, then when everyone starts crying, go home.

Sorted.

It’s more physical that you’d think

Surprisingly so. Picking up a 15kg toddler ain’t no thing, right? Not the first time, but by the hundredth time that day, it is a thing. Combined with other dad-related physical trials like car seat installation, nappy bin clearing and brushing teeth restraint – it’s a workout. While there isn’t one single action that will put massive strain on you, the combination of all of them, with tiredness thrown in, certainly will.

Mums know this and many do yoga for reasons beyond postpartum recovery: it assists with the twisting and strength required for bossing young kids all day. Unfortunately, the world isn’t ready to see you spray-foamed into yoga pants downwards dogging. Until times change, wear good trainers and bend at the knee when lifting.

You’ll hear ignorant crap on the daily

Is there still some stigma around being a stay at home dad? Absolutely. The concept of a grown-ass man staying home and raising kids still doesn’t compute with certain areas of our society.

Naturally, you’ll cop cheap shots from mates, “So when does the man of the house get home?”, and any phrase that includes the word “mangina”. Clever stuff for sure. The heavier hits may come from family; perhaps your dad introduces you to friends saying, “you’re in between jobs”. Random old ladies will jump to conclusions “have you taken the day off to give mum a break?” And then there’s shadowing assumptions, “Maybe he lost his job”, “Is he depressed?”, “Only a depressed guy would wear a grey cardigan”.

The most bullshit thing I’ve heard (anecdotally), said to a stay at home dad is, “Why are you doing the job of a 14 year old girl?” Without offending the abilities of 14 year old girls, that’s going to make any dad feel face-punchy.

Being a stay at home dad in New Zealand still challenges social expectations. While that remains the case, the old-fashioned, the unfiltered and the macho dinosaurs are still going to blurt out ignorant crap. Respond with anything from a polite smile to an accidental head-butt or just make like a three-year old and use your words.

You won’t be scratching your nuts watching test cricket

The real heartbreaker for prospective stay at home dads is the reality of how much time you’ll have to yourself on weekdays. Consider how much time you think you’ll have doing your own thing, halve that, and then halve it again for two kids, and again for a third. That’s about how much time you’ll have – on your best day.

The problem here is that the language surrounding the concept is a trap. “Are you finishing work to look after the kids?”, “It must be so nice not to work”. In reality, it’s usually a full day’s work and then some. Dreams of lowering golf handicaps or starting a profitable online business while “being off work” are going to be difficult to execute.

It’s also tough for new full time dads to accept that any day when “all they do” is parent the kids has been a successful day and an achievement in itself.

You’re not going to be the greatest dad in the entire universe

“If being a dad was all I had to do, I’d be the best dad ever!” That’s a sweet notion, rookie, and full credit for the misguided ambition. But it’s a survival situation, not an opportunity to chase empty accolades.

Also, teaching baby sign language or mastering the French braid on your little girl isn’t as easy as you may think. A vital part of full-time parenting is identifying the limitations of all parties involved, especially your own, and having clear processes and routines in place. If you aim for dadding that’s competent and confident then one day you may just unwrap a tacky ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ coffee mug. Claim it then.

Sadly, what grinds down many fresh stay at home dads aren’t the strains of the job, but the external perception of it, the feelings of isolation and even self-inflicted career damage. But people will say dumb things regardless of what you do, and total career duration greatly exceeds the short window where your children are in their earliest stages of development.

Most dads are faced with reasons, financial or otherwise, why being a stay at home dad isn’t viable. But if it is possible, and entered into with open eyes and a steely resolve, it’s a massively rewarding way to spend a few months or a few years. It’s the type of testing journey that isn’t easy to find within monotonous modern lifestyles.

By going full-time dad you’ll not only add a rich experience to your own life, your advocating of it will help reinforce what other stay at home dads achieved before you, and make it easier for other fathers that follow.

Full-time dad and sometime freelance writer, Adam Mamo writes about parenting and related madness. He’s no expert, just a survivor. 

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